Luang Prabang is the jewel in Laos’ crown. Located in the north of the country on the peninsula created by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the town is surrounded by lush green mountains and is a beautiful example of the fusion between Lao and European culture. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, it’s architecture and culture are revered throughout Asia.
The township itself is quite compact, and with the exception of Mount Phousi, is flat – and so perfect for exploring on foot. It’s a good idea to start early in the day as the climate can be tropical (read rainy!) in the afternoons, dependent on the time of year of your visit! Read on for my self-guided walking tour of Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang: A Walking Tour
1. Breakfast at JoMa Bakery
Start your day at one of Luang Prabang’s favorite bakery cafes. Located only a short stroll from the main intersection of the town, and not far from the tourist information center it is a remnant of the French influence on this tiny township.
2. Morning Market
Walking back towards the tourist office, turn left at the main intersection and then the first right down a nameless street which serves as the morning market. This is effectively the town’s ‘supermarket’ and here you’ll find anything from local fruits and veggies, dried chili and spices to meat and fish (*some of which is still alive!*) to pink eggs and made on the spot stir frys. Beware of the motorbikes though.. just because its a pedestrian street doesn’t mean the locals won’t sneak down where they can!
**Stay turned for my review of Tamarind Laos Cooking School with whom I visited the largest market in northern Laos – and where the food on sale was the definition of fresh!**
3. The Royal Palace museum & Haw Pra Bang (Wat MAI)
Where the market ends at a fork in the road, turn right and you will find yourself at the side of the Palace grounds. Enter from the main road (be sure to arrive before 11am or after 1.30pm as they close for lunch!). It is free to wander the grounds of the now defunct Lao Royal Family with a small entrance fee if you want to go inside the main building. We opted to skip this, but made our way around the right to the back of the building where there was a small exhibits of local artwork in the second story building hidden at the back of the property. Its worth a look to see if there is anything there on your visit!
After you have finished, exit back onto the main road where you will pass the most photographed temple in Luang Prabang – Haw Pra Bang (Wat Mai). The temple has a five tiered roof and is one of the most visually stunning in Asia. It was built to house Loas’ most revered Buddha image, the Phra Bang Buddha – for which the town was named after. It is spectacular both inside and out which ensures its status as a national treasure.
4. Wat Xieng Muan
A quiet temple, set back from the main road – it is hard to find if you don’t know what to look for. Nestled between a cafe and a travel agency on the main road, turn left onto a non-descript road leading towards the riverfront. Here you will find a cute little temple, numerous buddha status and outside the walls in the neighboring compound where the residential facilities are, a number of stupas.
Walk back to the main road and pick a lunch spot form the plethora of options available. Pick somewhere that doesn’t look as ‘polished’ and you’re *almost* guaranteed to get some of the best home cooked, traditional food in the village. If you haven’t tried Larb (Laap/Laab) this is the perfect opportunity. Larb is a national dish which can be made with chicken, fish, pork, mushrooms or beef – the protein is flavored with lime, fish sauce and chili and is normally served with fresh veggies and sticky rice. It is my absolute favorite Lao dish – and it would be a crime to visit Luang Prabang without trying it!
6. Wat Xieng Thong
Continue walking along the main road – not forgetting to admire the colonial buildings on the right – and on your left you will arrive upon Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. Its grounds contain a central huge sim with gilded and embossed walls telling the history of the Laos people, along with an outer wat, stupas, drum tower, monk’s quarters, library and a chapel! It is easy to spend over an hour here and is well worth the nominal entrance fee.
7. Wat Sene
Exiting back onto the main road – and walking back towards the Royal Palace, you will have noticed on the way down to Wat Xieng Thong, that there are many other temples to explore – often with chatty monks! Take a wander around Wat Sene and admire the drum towers, gilded temples and many stupas that are on show. One of my favorite shots from the day was taken whilst wandering around the residential area of Wat Sene where I noticed saffron robes hanging out to dry – the vibrant orange against the white washed walls and contrasting with the wooden beams of the roof really caught my eye.
If you’re templ-ed out by now – feel free to skip these last few Wats! And if you missed them on the way up – don’t forget to check out the amazing colonial building on the opposite side of the road.
8. Mount Phousi
So the temples conclude the flat portion of our walk – and walking back to the Palace, if you are tired – you could always skip Mount Phousi and come back to it another day. If not – up we climb! Enter via the stairway opposite the Grand Palace and be prepared for a lot of stairs to reach the 100m high summit. But man is it worth it. The sprawling views over both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers are breathtaking – you really do feel like you’re at the top of the world – or the top of Luang Prabang at least!
…and to reward you for your climb – be sure to turn around either half way up or half way down and get that picture perfect shot of the most photographed temple in Laos – Haw Pra Bang.
I hope you enjoyed my virtual walking tour of Luang Prabang. Did I miss any of your must-see spots? Or is there anywhere you would skip altogether? Let me know in the comments below.
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